Woman mauled, killed by her tiger; she had extensive business dealings with exotic animals

By Bob Von Sternberg

Star Tribune 2006

A 500-pound Bengal tiger kept in rural Pine County mauled and killed its owner at her residence, authorities in east-central Minnesota said today. Cynthia Lee Gamble, 52, of Danforth Township, was found late Thursday afternoon in a cage with the tiger, the County Sheriff’s Office said.

Gamble edited and wrote wildlife documentaries and was involved in television and feature films, according to a biographical note listed in her book “Leopards: Natural History and Conservation,” published by Voyageur Press in Stillwater. The note also said she has raised, trained and filmed wolves, wolverines, coyotes and foxes. Cyndi Gamble is listed as an animal coordinator for “Vertical Limit,” a major motion picture released in 2000 that used snow leopards. She lived at the home with her 14-year-old son.

Deputies had not determined whether the boy had seen his mother in the tiger enclosure, said Chief Deputy Steve Ovick. Gamble had kept tigers on her property for at least a decade and they had never caused problems that required a response from the Sheriff’s Office, Ovick said. At the time of her death, Gamble had two other tigers in the fenced enclosure; the animals are being cared for in the short term by friends, he said. Tammy Quist, executive director at the nearby Wildcat Sanctuary, said authorities called her to come to the scene with a tranquilizer gun. “We were notified by the sheriff when we arrived that she was already gone.” Gamble was the operator of the Center for Endangered Cats, a for-profit USDA-licensed facility that breeds and sells tigers.

The center was founded in 1992. According to her book’s biographical note, the center’s “feline ambassadors have graced books, magazines, newspapers, posters and calendars all over the world.” Quist said the center takes tigers to renaissance festivals, parks, schools and even a recent auto show in Minneapolis. The large cats would do routines while on leashes, she said. “It’s not a practice that I support,” she said. Quist said she is braced for local resistance to her own sanctuary in the wake of the killing.

“Every time a tiger hurts somebody or gets loose, we have to deal with the ramifications,” she said. “Something like this shows why we need sanctuaries for these animals.” In the past year, she said the sanctuary has removed 33 tigers from homes in Minnesota. “This is not the first time something like this has happened in Minnesota, but I’m hoping it’s the last,” she said. “It’s not an isolated incident and it’s sad we can’t put an end to something that’s so solvable.” According to the Sheriff’s Office: Personnel with the Sheriff’s Office, the Mille Lacs Tribal Police, emergency medical personnel and a veterinarian familiar with large cats were called to the scene 14 miles east of Sandstone by a man going to the residence to do a controlled burn.

The veterinarian destroyed the “very agitated” tiger, allowing access to Gamble. The animal was sent to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Hospital for examination. Gamble was dead at the scene, where other large cats and other exotic animals are kept. Her body was sent to the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. “I think the attack might create a little more public scrutiny now, just to be sure safeguards are in place,” Roger Nelson, vice chairman of the Pine County Board, said this morning. “There are hazards in any occupation. But in this case, there was no danger to the public, which is our big concern. This was an internal affair.” Said Chief Deputy Ovick: “The timing of this thing is unbelievable, with the sanctuary opening up just a stone’s throw away. I’ve got a strong feeling this is going to stimulate a lot of discussion at the county board about how they regulate these facilities in our county. People either love these big cats or they hate them.”

There have been several incidents with exotic animals in Minnesota in the past 12 months, including an attack on a 10-year-old Royalton boy by a lion and tiger at a residence in Little Falls last summer. The boy was left partly paralyzed. In April 2005, four tigers attacked Allison Asher, 37, while she was cleaning their pens on a man’s property in Florence Township in southeastern Minnesota. She was hospitalized for a time with wounds to the leg and neck.

Staff writers Kevin Giles and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

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